Lydian founder explores beauty in Korean music

Judy Eissenberg pursues interest in people, places, peace and world music

Photos/Dorothea Suh,

While in Korea, music professor Judy Eissenberg participated in workshops, attended performances and learned about Korean culture.

Judy Eissenberg is sitting in the Slosberg Music Center with a janggu, a drum, at her feet and a danso, a bamboo flute, in her hands. She holds the flute vertically and blows lightly across its top, hoping she remembers how to create a sound.

She’s just returned from the National Gugak Center in South Korea, where she spent two weeks learning about Korean music and culture at the government’s invitation.

“When you learn about [another country’s] traditions, you get somewhat below the surface. When I learn the beauty of another tradition, I have deep, warm feelings…” she says, her voice full of emotion. “I’m never the same.”

Eissenberg, who has been teaching music at Brandeis since 1980, when she also co-founded the Lydian String Quartet, is not an ethnomusicologist by profession, but she’s interested in people and places.

And in peace.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, caused Eissenberg, a native of Tennessee and current Harvard, Mass., resident, to reconsider the value of playing and teaching music.
“I thought as a musician, I could learn about the beauty of other traditions to help me not be afraid,” Eissenberg says. “I feel at least some element of what we do should be directed at peace. With music I can show how people create together, not destroy.”

When she thinks about the music of another culture, she considers the hopes and dreams behind its sound. It was with that idea in mind that she founded the Music Unites Us program, which brings prominent foreign musicians to Brandeis for brief residencies each semester, and it was in that spirit that she embarked on the trip to Korea this summer.

To her, the experience, which included everything from instrument lessons to folk dance performances to shaman ceremonies, felt like jumping into “an enormous bowl of candy.” She means that both in an emotional and musical sense.

​In Korea, Eissenberg learned to play the janggu, a drum with an hourglass shape and two heads made of animal skins, and the danso, a notched, end-blown vertical bamboo flute on which, she says, it took some of the 19 workshop attendees hours to even create a sound.

In contrast to the music she plays with the Lydians, which explores different levels of smoothness, traditional Korean music, or Gugak, explores levels of roughness, Eissenberg says. She​ is interested in delving into those rough edges, exploring the boundaries of what sounds good and what does not.

“It’s full of dissonance, melody, complex drumming, rhythm,” she says. “Dissonance, to me, is the pinnacle of beauty. Flirting with chaos, then the relief when you get past it.”

The exploration, however, is key. Like the Pacific Rim Festival that blends Western and Korean music and instruments, at which she’s played with the Lydians, she’s interested in creating a new space – exclusively belonging to neither tradition.

​Eissenberg is passionate about the music she plays with Lydians, recordings of which she listened to at the birth of her 13-year-old daughter, and which she wants played at her funeral, but her interests also extend beyond performing Western music.

​“I’ve never been interested in just playing music,” Eissenberg says. “I like creating environments, and I don’t have to be on stage to do that… I feel really fortunate. The quartet is what I’d like to do all my life. I’d also like to approach being an ethnomusicologist," and study music in the context of the society and culture in which it is created.

This year, the Lydians will premiere original music for the string quartet: a new piece by composer Harold Meltzer, and three pieces written by Brandeis faculty composers in celebration of Fred Lawrence's presidency and soon release a recording of all the late Beethoven string quartets. Regardless of musical genre, her performances are influenced by her experiences abroad.

​Back at Brandeis, she’ll incorporate some of what she learned in Korea into her Intro to World Music course this year, and also take a stab at creating those environments. Part of the task is to teach students to listen.​ When asked when they do most of their listening, more than half of her students respond “while studying,” she says.

“That’s not listening,” Eissenberg says. “We need to redefine what ​‘listening’ means.”

Categories: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

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